Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Riddling Exegesis

Isaiah 45:3-7 'Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him—and the gates shall not be closed: 2) I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, 3) I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. 4) For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.

5)' I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, 6) so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. 7) I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things'.

There is a school of exegesis that says there is nothing of the contemplative life in the Bible. This seems to me to be one of the more extreme expressions of a) a tired but still fashionable scientism among academics, and b) yet another consequence of the loss of the work of silence. Recently I heard a sermon in which the first part of the above passage was interpreted to mean 'mineral wealth'.

Now certainly Cyrus had the opportunity to strip the land of its mineral wealth, but I don't think that's what this passage is saying. Rather, it may be saying something quite amazing, something that would have been absolutely shocking to Second Isaiah's readers or hearers.

First, the passage speaks of Cyrus as the Lord's anointed. This is startling enough: Cyrus, who is most certainly not numbered amongst the 'Chosen people' is anointed with the spirit of God over these peoples; he is to be God's messenger. The second verse sounds far more like military road construction and the looting of palaces than 'mineral wealth'.

But the chapter progressively deepens. Verse 3 is more likely about mining the soul than the earth, a bestowal of deep knowledge, an intimate knowledge of God hidden in the heart so that Cyrus will act from out of this knowledge, even if he does not acknowledge the Lord or worship him. The passage is stating firmly that the knowledge of God is not confined to one people or another, or one way of interpretation or another, and indeed that the knowledge of God by foreign nations and kings in fact can benefit Jacob and Israel—in this case by their necessary humbling. Indeed, the Lord goes so far as to give Cyrus a patrimony, a surname.

Verses 5-7 are a reiteration of the summary of the law and an echo of the beholding in the creation story—again, all the more extraordinary because the recapitulation of this knowledge will come through Cyrus—who does not keep the law. It is through this alien king that those who do acknowledge the Lord and keep the law may be taught by God, reminded that God can use anything and anyone to convey the message that idols of any sort—and even the law can be an idol—are insignificant in comparison to the over-riding vision, the beholding of God, which should rule their days.

Isaiah is telling the people that the knowledge of God and the workings of God are not what you might expect: they are found in what may seem the least likely people and places, including those whom you dread, and whose appearing distresses you.

This theme is, of course, picked up by Jesus: you do not know the day or the hour (Mt. 24:42); God's revelation is hidden from the wise and revealed to infants (Mt. 11:25); the prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the kingdom of heaven first (Mt. 21:31).

Like beauty in the eye of the beholder, the word of God is in the ear of the hearer: it is everywhere. Only those who are not preoccupied with the materialism of the law and its institutions are likely to receive it (a notion echoed in John 14).


Post a Comment

<< Home